A federal court in Maryland has denied the City of Laurel, Maryland’s (“City”) motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Redemption Community Church (“Church”). The Church filed suit last February, after the City issued a cease and desist order prohibiting the Church from offering religious services at the coffee shop it owns in the City’s community-village zoning district (the “CV Zone”). We previously posted about this case here.
The Church purchased property at 385 Main Street in the City in March 2015 (the “Property”), with the intention of operating a non-profit coffee shop Monday through Saturday, and a house of worship on Sundays. When the Church first entered into a purchase agreement for the Property, non-profit businesses and houses of worship were permitted uses in the CV Zone. Less than a month after the Church contracted to buy the Property, the City amended its zoning code on March 9, 2015, to exclude non-profit businesses from the CV Zone, and again on April 27, 2015, to require a special exception for houses of worship located on less than one acre in the CV Zone. Together, these amendments prohibited both of the Church’s originally intended uses for the Property.
In November 2015, the Church decided to reorganize as a for-profit entity, so that it could operate the coffee shop as originally intended. It thereafter undertook extensive renovations, and the City issued it a use and occupancy permit to operate a for-profit coffee shop on April 3, 2017; the shop opened for business two days later. On April 9, 2017, the Church began hosting worship gatherings for up to 20 people in the coffee shop basement for two hours on Sundays, while the shop was closed.
After some two months of these Sunday gatherings, the City issued a cease and desist order on July 27, 2017. The Church, however, continued to hold small worship gatherings on Sundays, believing it was not in violation of the City zoning code or its use and occupancy permit. It was not until the City issued a second cease and desist order, on January 26, 2018, that the Church stopped holding Sunday worship gatherings.
The Church’s Complaint asserts claims under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination, equal terms, and substantial burden provisions, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Free Speech, Free Assembly, and Establishment clauses, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, all of which survived the City’s motion to dismiss.
In analyzing the City’s motion, the Court first considered the City’s arguments that the Church’s claims were not ripe for adjudication, given that the Church never applied for, and was never denied, a special exception permit. The Court distinguished between the Church’s facial claims and its as-applied claims, as the Fourth Circuit has long held that facial challenges to land-use regulations are ripe without a “final decision” on the law’s application to the property. Moreover, courts in the Fourth Circuit have developed several notable exceptions to the finality requirement that traditionally pertains to as-applied claims. For one, “landowners are not required to resort to ‘repetitive or unfair land use procedures’ to obtain a final decision.” Acorn Land, LLC v. Baltimore County, Maryland, 402 F. App’x 809, 814 (4th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, the Court found that both the facial and as-applied claims were ripe.
Next, the Court considered the City’s argument that the Church failed to state a claim as to each cause of action. The Court assumed the factual allegations in the Church’s complaint to be true, as required by the applicable judicial standard of review.
The Church’s Complaint alleges that the City’s April 2015 zoning code amendments (requiring houses of worship on less than one acre in the CV Zone to undergo “a costly and onerous special exception process”) treat religious use worse than numerous secular uses, such as community theaters, libraries, museums, or schools for business, art or music, which are permitted in the CV Zone as-of-right. Although the circuit courts are split on the proper test to determine comparators for Equal Terms claims and the Fourth Circuit has yet to rule on the issue, the Court here determined that, under any circuit’s test, all of these secular uses could constitute a similarly situated comparator. Accordingly, the Court found that the Church had sufficiently pled that the City’s Code treats religious institutions on unequal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions.
In the Fourth Circuit, in order to establish a claim under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision, “a plaintiff must show evidence of discriminatory intent.” According to the Church, the close temporal proximity of the Code amendments and the Church’s purchase of the Property allows for the inference that the City was “specifically motivated by discriminatory animus against the Church.” Additionally, the Church alleged that the City Planner made certain statements “imply[ing] that he, and potentially others, may have been motivated by discriminatory animus” to amend the zoning code and issue the cease and desist orders. The Court found these allegations, if true, to be sufficient evidence of discriminatory intent to maintain a claim under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision.
In analyzing the Church’s substantial burden claim, that Court explained that because religious use was allowed as-of-right when the Church purchased the Property, the zoning code amendments restricted the Church’s ability to use its Property as originally intended, “leaving the Church with a $470,000 investment and no house of worship.” Therefore, the Court determined that undergoing the special exception application process would constitute a substantial burden.
Similarly, the Court found that the facts, as the Church alleged, were sufficient to state claims under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Free Speech, Free Assembly, and Establishment clauses, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.
The Court’s decision in Redemption Community Church v. City of Laurel, Maryland is available here.
Update: The City’s Latest Code Amendment
Following the Court’s denial of the City’s motion to dismiss, on September 24, 2018, the City enacted Text Amendment 250, which removes the special exception requirement for a House of Worship on less than one acre and provides that a House of Worship is a “Permitted Use” in the CV-Zone. In a letter to the Court, the City stated: “[T]he Church no longer is required to submit an application for Special Exception in order to use the Property for a House of Worship.”
Note that, under RLUIPA’s safe harbor provision, which allows local governments to take corrective action to “avoid the preemptive force” of the statute, the enactment of Text Amendment 250 may render moot the Church’s claims of religious discrimination.